The Cat's Meow! Caterwauling in Cats

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Pet Services

The cat’s meow conveys many messages. “Hello." “Let me in.” “Let me out.” “Give me food.” “Clean my litter box.” You know your cat and understand his normal vocabulary. But when the usual meow turns into the high-pitched, drawn out howl-yowl called caterwauling, you may need an interpreter!

What is caterwauling?

Caterwauling is hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it! This disturbing sound is a cross between a yowl, a howl, and a whine. It is melodic and melodramatic. It’s persistent. It means, “PAY ATTENTION!!! SOMETHING IS UP!!” Most caterwauling is directed at humans so we have to decipher this cat language. Cats also speak to each other by caterwauling and the message is loud and clear in feline circles. No interpreter needed!

Why do cats howl?

Cats start caterwauling to communicate many needs and emotions including the following:

Physical problems. Cats that are in pain will make noise! If their tummy hurts or they have arthritic joints, or they are injured, they vocalize. Cats with systemic medical problems like thyroid disease or kidney malfunction (often associated with high blood pressure) may howl, too. Any number of ailments can precipitate caterwauling. If your cat begins making strange noises, start with a visit to your veterinarian to rule out medical problems.

Hormonal reasons. When female cats are in heat, they make strange noises to alert males in the vicinity. Males, in turn, respond with equally strange noises to let the females know they heard the mating call.

Danger warnings. Cats are territorial and protect their turf. If a stranger (animal or human) comes inside their protected perimeter, they may caterwaul. Even if the intruder stays outside, they may yowl. Expect some singing if your cat sees birds, squirrels, mail carriers, etc. through a window and considers them trespassers.

Insecurity. Cats don’t like change. They often become anxious if new people or pets join the family or if the existing family moves into a new home. Cats may become frustrated if their ‘human’ gets a job or goes to school and leaves them alone. Caterwauling may be their way of telling you that they are unhappy or insecure with their new circumstances. Stressed out cats can really make noise!

Desire for attention. Even the most aloof cat may sometimes crave your attention. What better way to get it than yowling? Maybe your cat needs some affection. Maybe he needs some water. Maybe he’s just bored and wants a playmate. Maybe he wants to see if you’ll jump at his caterwauling command.

Disorientation, or cognitive dysfunction. Like humans with dementia, some cats experience cognitive changes as they age. According to the ASPCA, more than 55% of cats 11-15 years of age and 80% of cats 16-20 have some form of cognitive dysfunction. Senior cats may approach the food bowl but forget to eat. Others may exhibit repetitive behaviors like pacing the floor. And some aged cats caterwaul. Cats are historically nocturnal creatures, but with cognitive dysfunction, cats take night-time to the extreme by howling at all hours. Since older cats often have hearing loss, they may turn up the volume on the evening concerts. With declining vision, they may wander aimlessly and stumble around the house and as they become increasingly frustrated, the caterwauling escalates even more.

How can I make caterwauling stop?

Since the reasons for caterwauling vary, you may have to try different tactics to alleviate the behavior. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Visit your veterinarian to rule out medical problems. Even if your cat sees her veterinarian regularly, take her in as soon as you note behavior changes. She may have developed a new medical problem. Early diagnosis of thyroid disease, kidney malfunction, arthritis, or other ailments may mean more effective treatment. The right medical remedy may also remedy the caterwauling.
  • If your cat’s caterwauling is hormonal in nature, ‘fix’ the problem. Get him or her ‘fixed’. Female cats should be spayed (removal of ovaries and uterus) before their first heat cycle. Male cats should be neutered (removal of testicles) at an early age, too. Talk to your veterinarian about the optimum time for the procedure that will benefit both your cat and you. In addition to the elimination of hormonal caterwauling, you will help the cat overpopulation dilemma.
  • Reassure territorial cats. Cats that resist having anyone (human or animal) enter their domain may need reassurance. Comfort your cat with physical attention while gradually introducing the newcomer. If your cat howls at people or animals or birds that are outside, restrict his view temporarily by closing the shades or drapes. Of course, if your cat likes to look outdoors for entertainment, he may become bored and howl for another reason! Moderation here is key!
  • Deal with night-time insecurities. If you have an insecure night-time caterwauler, try to anticipate his needs and fill them before the noise begins. Make sure he is not hungry or thirsty. Give him extra attention. Stay within his visual range. This may mean having him sleep in your room. Here’s where it gets tricky - don’t reward caterwauling. It’s okay to lavish your cat with attention to prevent caterwauling, but not okay to bestow affection to stop the caterwauling. Don’t reward whining! If you do, your cat will quickly recognize that he is in charge and that caterwauling gets him what he wants.
  • Reset your cat’s timetable. If your cat stays awake at night and naps all day, you may need to adjust his biological clock. Cats are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and nocturnal (active at night). Encourage your cat to stay awake during the day by providing entertaining toys. Before nightfall, engage him in active play to tire him out. Then provide quiet time as the household prepares for bed.
  • Schedule mealtime. Cats are free feeders, nibbling at will, but a meal schedule may reduce caterwauling. Try feeding your cat in the morning before you leave for work and again in the evening around dinner time. Follow up that evening play session with a late dinner. Pushing your cat’s mealtime back will ensure he stays fuller overnight. Just remember to provide fresh water all the time.
  • Keep the litter box clean. Scoop in evening so your cat has no excuse to complain about his litter box in the middle of the night!
  • Keep your cat warm. Keeping your older cat comfortable, especially at night, may reduce anxieties. Older cats cannot regulate body temperatures as efficiently as younger cats. They crave warmth, so place his bed out of drafts and provide an extra blanket.
  • Leave the light on. Cats normally see well in the dark, but cats with vision problems, especially older cats, may need additional light to navigate the house at night. A simple night light can help an elderly cat with visual deficits or impaired cognitive function feel more secure, which may tone down nighttime caterwauling. Remove obstacles and household clutter to further reduce stress and frustration. 
  • Play music. A radio set on low volume will remind your cat that she’s not alone. This helps at night as well as during the day when you are away from home.

Cat lovers think their cat is the 'cat’s meow'!  We love hearing them purr. But, listening to caterwauling is no fun. Learn to interpret this disturbing cat language. Understand what your caterwauling cat is trying to communicate. Meet his needs. Then end the conversation!

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